We joined hands with the Navy

During 1971, I was posted as an instructor at the Transport Training Wing ( TTW) at the IAF base at Yelahanka. It was a difficult year and we did a lot of work starting with the airlift of refugees from Agartala arriving from East Pakistan. We did this alongside a detachment of US Air Force Hercules aircraft and then went on with the airlift of personnel and equipment all over the country in preparation for the war. We were literally running shuttles to the distant corners of the country from Yelahanka. A typical flight would be Yelahanka-Delhi-Yelahanka which took the better part of 14 hours in a Dakota. This is akin to an ultra long haul flight in a modern jet aircraft sans all the frills.

About the time the war started, while everyone was preparing for the Tangail drop, I was sent off to Bombay, attached to Maritime Air Operations ( MAO) Headquarters for whatever running around they may ask me to do. One night a Navy Alize after returning from an Ops mission, ran into a drain and broke his prop. So off we went to Cochin to fetch a new prop for the Alize.

It was lunch time when we landed in Cochin and decided to have lunch at the  Naval Mess while the aircraft was being loaded. But because of the different rank structures, the navigator and I being Flt Lts and the co pilot a Fg Offr, they couldn’t seat us at the same table. Besides we were in flying overalls and for the tradition bound Navy that seemed outrageous. We had to remind them that there was a war on in the North somewhere and that while they may not have noticed, we had been involved in its preparations for months. Anyway to cut a long story short, we ended up eating in the ladies room, picked up the prop and flew back to Bombay.

I used to smoke those days and after alighting from the aircraft lit a cigarette. We were soon surrounded by guys from Air India. One fellow claiming to be a senior engineer walked up to me and asked me to put out my cigarette because Pakistani radar would lock on to it. I told him and the rest of that mob what I would do with the cigarette if they said another word. The last thing we needed was these ignorant big city guys teaching us our responsibility. We were the ones fighting the war while they sat comfortably in their air conditioned offices. Such was the panic among Bombay-walas those days. I was tired having flown over a 1000 hours on Dakotas during that year and angry over being left out of the Tangail drop. So was quite willing to take my frustration out on someone. But things turned around and suddenly an ops mission fell into our laps which was probably more exciting than the Tangail drop and the best thing was we were alone.

On 8th December 1971, I got a call from MAO HQ asking me to leave for Cochin immediately and report to the Chief of Flying at the Naval Base for briefing. We were told that the Navy had been trailing a ship called the MV Toronto which had sailed out of Karachi but had lost it during the night. The ship, they suspected may be carrying arms for East Pakistan (as it was called then) and that it was imperative it be found. We were given a general location and asked to set out for the search immediately.

- Dakotas were still the mainstay of the IAF's transport fleet during the 71 War.

We took off, quite early in the day and set off for the general search area which was about 100 miles offshore somewhere between Goa and Cochin. I asked Ambre (Amber as I called him) to set up some sort of a search pattern. We had no training in MR ops but having spent time in the Air Force Navigation School we had some idea of what to do. We were flying around at 500 feet, sweating away in all that humidity when after about an hour and a half we saw a ship on the horizon. I got down immediately and not having been trained in ship silhouette recognition wondered how we would make out what ship it was. Having no other choice I made a wide circle around the ship and came in from line astern, 2250 RPM and 34" of boost, giving the old Dakota a princely speed of about 170K. We crossed the ships mast with just feet to spare and the crew ran helter skelter as we went past.

The ship was flying a Canadian Flag and couldn’t therefore have been offensive. I pulled up to 500 feet and started circling around the ship. The ships crew were all in short pants and were waving out to us. We passed a message on to Cochin to let them know that the ship had been located. Cochin asked for the ship’s exact position so  Amber got out his Sextant and got them the best position under the circumstances. We were then told that INS Godavari, a destroyer I think, was on the look out for this ship and was some 20-30 miles west of us but had lost contact with base. They gave us an approximate location of the Godavari and asked us to proceed to the ship and get it to home onto the Toronto. So there we were, flying further west from the coast on the lookout for INS Godavari.

Once again after flying around for an hour or so we saw a ship on the horizon. But this time it I did not want to get too close to a naval ship, with a war going on, and especially since they had no information about us. I climbed to 500 feet and staying some miles off the ship tried drawing its attention by firing Green Cartridges from the very pistol. When they responded with a green we went a bit closer and asked for their identification by Aldis Lamp. Once it was confirmed the ship was in fact the INS Godavari we went closer and gave the location of MV Toronto. We could not establish radio contact with Godavari and communicated with it by means of Aldis Lamp alone. A message was passed on to Navy Ops by Morse code. We were asked to return to the Toronto and hang around with it till the Godavari came along and the ship was taken over.

The Godavari took some time to get to the Toronto and we were asked to stay clear while they did whatever they had to do to get the Toronto to drop anchor. It was only after the Navy boarded the Toronto and took charge of the ship, we were finally allowed to leave the scene and return to base. The Toronto I believe, was later brought into Cochin harbour.

Was this really 1971 ? Aldis Lamp, morse code...one would think it was an operation out the Second World War. But that is how it was done and I was extremely pleased to have been part of it. This was probably the only real Sea Air Co-op Operation during both wars. Amber did a brilliant job as the Navigator during an operation that lasted the better part of 6 hours. The aircraft we flew during this MR Ops was Dakota J975 *. Flt Lt J. Singh who was at Yelahanka probably doing his Command training was the co-pilot. I can’t unfortunately remember the name of the air signaler but he did a remarkable job with the Aldis Lamp and as a look out for enemy aircraft. And during all that time no one mentioned the fact that we were out there over the sea with no survival gear like life jackets or dinghies. There was a war going on after all. —

The author recently retired as an accomplished Commander on the Boeing 747 and other modern transport jets of its ilk. This story goes back to his days as a Flight Lieutenant flying Dakota aircraft for the IAF.  This article was first published in SALUTE Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.

* Dakota J975 was reportedly destroyed in an accident on 19 May 1975